Cognition and Development

As humans, we have so many skills and abilities. Some we learn, and some we are born with, but what happens when we do not develop these properly? Cognition and development psychology research attempt to understand this. 

Cognition and Development Cognition and Development

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Table of contents
    • We will start by understanding the link between cognition and development psychology.
    • Then we will delve into the theories of cognitive development, including Piaget’s stages of development and Vygotsky’s theory.
    • Moving on, we will learn about the moral development Kohlberg theory.
    • Finally, we will explore social cognition development.

    Cognition and Development Psychology

    Cognition and development psychology are investigated independently of one another but also together too.

    Cognition refers to mental processes such as learning, language or perception that helps us learn about novel things. It is a mental process that influences our behaviour.

    Cognitive developmental psychology investigates how children’s mental processes and representations evolve to develop higher-level thinking.

    Psychologists have proposed many theories and attempted to support them via research to explain how cognition and other mental processes, such as morals develop.

    These abilities evolve and adapt with age from our thoughts, experiences, environment and senses. And sometimes, they may not develop properly, leading to developmental illnesses.

    Theories of Cognitive Development

    Piaget and Vygotsky have proposed two major theories of cognitive development. Both of the theories aim to explain how cognitive skills develop in infants.

    Piaget’s Stages of Development

    Piaget was the first to identify how children and adults think differently. Before this, children were thought to have smaller versions of adult brains.

    Piaget argued we learn to think gradually as children through our experiences and exploration.

    Piaget identified four stages of cognitive development.

    1. The sensorimotor stage.
    2. The preoperational stage.
    3. The concrete operational stage.
    4. The formal operational stage.

    Vygotsky’s Theory of Cognitive Development

    Vygotsky’s approach to understanding cognitive development is through social constructivism. The theory argues that cognitive development occurs because of social interactions.

    Vygotsky claimed that infants are born with basic cognitive abilities. These are called elementary mental functions. The basic elements are theorised to develop into higher mental functions as the infant interacts more with its sociocultural environment.

    People thus learn cognitive skills, such as cultural views, values and problem-solving skills, from more knowledgeable people (this theory is known as the zone of proximal development) via language.

    Vygotsky notes that talking and understanding language are crucial aspects of cognitive development.

    Cognition and Development: Piaget and Vygotsky Differences

    Both Vygotsky and Piaget proposed theories of cognitive development. There are noticeable differences between both theories, which we summarise in the table below.



    It takes a cognitive approach to explain cognitive development.

    It takes a social approach to explain cognitive development.

    Cognitive development is mostly an independent process.

    Cognitive development is based on others and our environment.

    There are fixed stages that children go through.

    There are no fixed stages in cognitive development.

    It emphasises the role of peers in cognitive development.

    Emphasise the role of adults in cognitive development.

    Moral Development Kohlberg

    Moral development depends on the standards of individuals’ cultures and the views of those we share our environment with; rules, societal standards and laws influence these.

    Moral development is the process of infants learning right and wrong.

    Kohlberg proposed the stages of moral development. This theory states that there are three levels of moral development, each developed in two stages. The three stages are as follows:

    Preconventional (typically lasts until nine years old):
    • Result of obedience and punishment – behaving in a way that avoids punishment.
    • Individualism and exchange – children begin to understand there is more than one right way, e.g. adults have different views of right and wrong.
    • Good interpersonal relationships – the moral is centred around being seen as a ‘good’ person.
    • Maintaining social order – morals, views, and rules of society are obeyed to avoid punishment.
    • Social contract and individual rights – the realisation that rules/laws may be in place to serve the interests of wider society. However, these may not benefit or be of interest to them.
    • Universal principles – developing moral guidelines.

    Cognition and Development: Infants Developing Skills

    It is debated amongst psychologists whether infants’ abilities are innate (born with) or a result of interactions with the environment.

    Baillargeon and Vygotsky argued that children are born with some cognitive skills.

    However, Piaget’s theory of cognitive development argues children learn these cognitive skills after experiencing the stages of development.

    Baillargeon’s Explanation of Early Infant Abilities

    Baillargeon proposed infants are born with a physical reasoning system (PRS).

    PRS gives basic skills that allow them to understand basic concepts of the world. The PRS develops through experience, so it gets more sophisticated as the infants observe phenomena.

    Baillargeon’s theory assumes that infants’ understanding of objects and the physical world is better than what other researchers, such as Piaget, predicted.

    Baillargeon challenged Piaget’s theory of object permanence and the novelty of new stimuli through the violation of expectation research.

    Here, she presented an object to an infant until they became familiar with it (repeated exposure removing novelty). Then, the object was used in two scenarios. In this instance, it was a drawbridge that could be lowered. An item was placed in its path, and the infant was observed.

    In one scenario, the object blocked the path of the drawbridge, which is the expected scenario. In the second instance, the drawbridge passed through the object is an unexpected scenario.

    The researchers found that infants tended to look longer at the unexpected scenario because it was an ‘impossible event’.

    Social Cognition Development

    Social cognition typically develops during childhood and adolescence. During the development of social cognition, individuals start seeing the world from their perspective. In addition, they begin to understand that others have different perspectives of the world.

    Social cognition is when people become aware of their own and others’ mental states, such as thoughts, emotions and motivators.

    What is the theory of mind, and what does it look like in a realistic scenario?

    Theory of mind is the ability to understand and reason about others’ mental states and what motivates others to act in a certain way.

    The theory of mind is considered an essential social cognition skill, and those who have a weak theory of mind may have developmental illnesses such as autism.

    An example is understanding that people may be restless or anxious because they are shaking their legs.

    Cognition and Development: The Sally-Anne Test

    The Sally-Anne test is a famous example of testing the theory of mind. It is a scenario that is put forwards to a child.

    • Sally has a basket, and Anne has a box. Sally places an item in her basket and goes for a walk; Anne then takes it out of the basket and puts it into her box. Sally comes back and wants to use the item.
    • Researchers would then ask where Sally would look.

    The correct answer is based on the belief question: Sally would look in her basket, as she doesn’t know it’s been moved. From Sally’s perspective, the item is still in the basket. This is a different perspective from the child being asked; if the child says Sally will look in Anne’s box, they would be wrong and fail the test.

    Passing is seen as having a strong theory of mind.

    Cognition and Development Sally Anne Test Scenario StudySmarterFig. 1. The Sally-Anne test has been used to assess people with many developmental illnesses, such as autism.

    The theory of mind is essential for cognitive development as it is a skill to predict and interpret own and others’ behaviour. It is also crucial for improving and maintaining interpersonal relationships.

    Cognition and Development - Key takeaways

    • Cognition and development psychology are investigated independently of one another but also together too.

    • Theories of cognitive development include Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s stages of development.

      • The two theories have many differences, such as the emphasis on the role of the environment.

    • Kohlberg proposed the stages of moral development. The theory states there are three levels of morality:

      • Preconventional, conventional, and post-conventional.

    • It is debated amongst psychologists whether infants’ abilities are innate (born with) or a result of interactions with the environment.

    • Social cognition development is how people become aware of their own and others’ mental states and thoughts. The period of social cognition development is also when individuals begin to look at the world from their perspective.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Cognition and Development

    What is cognitive developmental psychology?

    Cognitive developmental psychology investigates how children’s mental processes and representations develop to develop higher-level thinking.

    Is cognitive and intellectual development the same?

    No, intelligence refers to things we learn and use during adaptive situations. Cognition refers to cognitive skills that develop from our senses and experiences.

    What are the stages of cognitive development?

    1. The sensorimotor stage. 
    2. The preoperational stage. 
    3. The concrete operational stage.
    4. The formal operational stage. 

    How are physical, cognitive, and development factors related?

    An increase in any of these factors has been found to lead to an indirect effect on each of the other factors.

    What are examples of cognitive-developmental theory?

    Piaget's stage of cognitive development model is an example of a cognitive development theory. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When did Piaget propose his theory of cognitive development?

    Cognitive development takes place with the interaction between________ and environmental situations.

    Children pass through four stages of cognitive development, irrespective of their _______ and gender.

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